Campaigns // An Ghaeilge
“Therefore, I say to our friends of the Gaelic movement – your proper place is in the ranks of the Socialist Republican Party, fighting for the abolition of this accursed social system which grinds us down in such a manner; which debases the character and lowers the ideals of our people to such a fearful degree, that to the majority of our workers the most priceless manuscript of ancient Celtic lore would hold but a secondary place in their esteem beside a rasher of bacon.”
The Irish language has been spoken in Ireland for around 3000 years. For the majority of that time it was the country’s dominant language. This changed 200 years ago, as part of a deliberate process of cultural conquest applied by successive British governments over a course of centuries.
This cultural conquest was a core component of Britain’s imperial designs on Ireland, and became an important tool for imperialist powers in their efforts to dominate native peoples all over the world.
The Kenyan anti-colonial activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o described it thus:
The process was accelerated by the advent of capitalism in Ireland, aided by the Cromwellian conquest and Penal Laws that robbed the vast majority of native Irish speakers of what little land they owned. Capitalist development under colonial conditions in Ireland ensured that opportunities were only available for those who spoke the colonisers’ language.
This process of cultural assimilation has always met with resistance, in Ireland and all around the world. Frantz Fanon argued that, “To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle.”
In Ireland 100 years ago, the establishment of organisations such as the Gaelic League and GAA would give form to the ideas later defined by Fanon. Pádraig Mac Piarais would declare: “If one thing has become plainer than another it is that when the seven men met in O’Connell street to found the Gaelic League, they were commencing... not a revolt, but a revolution.”
The language and broader cultural movements were central to the Irish Revolution in the early 20th century. The ultimate failure and overturning of that revolution, as well as the subsequent partition of the country, dealt a serious blow to the Irish language revival.
In the nominally independent Free State the language was given a symbolic position while the neo-colonial nature of the state ensured that there was little real change from the previous British administration. In the Six Counties, the one-party Unionist regime made sure that all things Irish were kept out of sight and out of mind.
The unfinished nature of the anti-colonial project in Ireland has left many people with a kind of cultural schizophrenia, as Douglas Hyde wrote of Irish sentiment that it: “contrives to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality and at the same time throws away with both hands ‘what would make it so’.”
Imperialism’s cultural hegemony in Ireland must be overcome. Anglo-American cultural and linguistic imperialism, and the capitalist system they serve, must be overthrown if true independence is to be achieved.
éirígí has and will continue to support efforts by Irish language communities and activists to reverse the decline of Gaeltacht areas, to establish and attain recognition for Irish-medium schools, and to have their rights as Irish speakers acknowledged.
“The Irish language movement must always play an active role in the struggle of the Irish people to fulfil the aims of the Easter Proclamation. This is the Reconquest of Ireland, the Revolution, a revolution of the mind and of the soul, a revolution in matters of wealth, property and livelihood, to live as Gaels in a way that is natural to us as Gaels.” – Máirtín Ó Cadhain
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